Death and the Maiden

Ariel Dorfman’s drama fails to capitalize on an intriguing premise.

Sandra Oh as Paulina Salas and Raúl Castillo as her husband, Gerardo, in Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, directed by Chay Yew at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater.
Sandra Oh as Paulina Salas and Raúl Castillo as her husband, Gerardo, in Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, directed by Chay Yew, at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater.

Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden explores what becomes of individuals and nations who survive systemic crimes against humanity and asks questions such as, Can a policy of truth and reconciliation ever be truly healing? Or is eye-for-an-eye vengeance required if those who have endured torture are ever to move on with their lives?

Instead of crafting a story peopled by characters as complex as the questions they provoke, however, Dorfman gives us a series of talking points and a plot that's dependent on a series of coincidences that cross the line between suspension of disbelief and eye-rollingly preposterous. Death and the Maiden also suffers greatly from a cop-out of an ending in which the only conclusion you can reasonably draw involves two of the three primary characters engaging in an act that's A) completely out of character for one of them or B) would surely involve serious consequences that Dorfman deems nonexistent.

Directed by Victory Gardens Artistic Director Chay Yew and starring a much-advertised Sandra Oh (Grey's Anatomy) alongside John Judd and Raúl Castillo, Death and the Maiden is apt to draw audiences thanks to its celebrity quotient. Those also hoping for an engaging story and/or provocatively rich characters as well will leave disappointed.

Dorfman sets his tale in an unnamed country (the playwright is Chilean) emerging from years under a brutal military dictatorship and taking its first fledgling steps toward democracy. Oh plays Paulina Salas, a former medical student who was kidnapped, raped, and tortured under the military regime. Fifteen years after her abduction, she is far from whole. When we first see her, she's crouching and grimacing like a gargoyle, terrified by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway of the isolated beach house where she and her husband Gerardo (Castillo) are staying.

Geraldo has come home with momentous news: the President is about to name him to a commission charged with investigating those who committed atrocities — but only some of them, as Paulina emphasizes with a mix of rage and despair. "Only the most serious cases," the ones that resulted in death, will be pursued. Paulina and those who survived have little hope of seeing their tormenters pay for their crimes.

It's here that Dorfman begins piling on the improbabilities. Geraldo has had a flat tire on the way home, and has been picked up by the kindly Samaritan Dr. Miranda (Judd). Paulina hears Miranda's voice, and is convinced he is the same doctor who raped her and sent volts of electricity under her fingernails while playing Shubert's lissome "Death and the Maiden." Paulina moves from fearful to furious in short order. Brandishing a gun, she demands that Miranda confess and repent, forcing her husband into the role of middleman and accomplice.

The most intriguing element of Dorfman's drama lies in its ambiguity. It's never clear whether Dr. Miranda is in fact the monster who subjected Paulina to all-but unspeakable torments or whether Paulina is in the grips of paranoia.

Director Yew coaxes adequate but not especially potent performances from the three-person cast. Oh has a commanding presence, but we never get a strong sense of who Paulina is beneath her wild rages and shivering terrors. She's more of a display of post-traumatic stress symptoms than a fully formed person, and while that might be the point, it makes for a character that's frustratingly unknowable. Judd too has little to work with. Dr. Miranda moves from outraged denial to panicked pleading effectively, but he's a bland cipher throughout. As the go-between, Castillo simply doesn't register with any lasting impact.

In the end, Dorfman sets aside the mystery of whether Paulina is an empowered force for justice of a damaged woman indulging in paranoid fantasies. That leads to the hugely problematic final moments of the piece. The last scene indicates that Miranda has been somehow disposed of and that Geraldo has succeeded in gaining his prestigious appointment. And that leads to two conclusions, neither of which seems at all likely. Geraldo hardly seems like the type of fellow who could capably dispose of a body and then glide into a prestigious governmental position with his superiors none the wiser. Or, if there was no body to dispose of, are we simply to believe that Dr. Miranda agreed to go back out into the night without ever reporting his abduction at the hands of a high-powered human rights attorney and his volatile wife?

Early in Death and the Maiden, Dr. Miranda says he understands what Paulina is after: the same sort of healing that the entire nation so badly needs and deserves. It's an insight that could be the kernel of a compelling drama, a story that boils down the macro to the micro, the political to the deeply personal. But that's not the story Dorfman winds up with.

Depending on what you conclude about Dr. Miranda and Paulina, Death and the Maiden either relies wholly on unbelievable happenstance or provides a prolonged, unvarying look at the psychic and physical damage of torture. The former is contrivance. The latter isn't a drama, it's a prolonged description of a condition. Either way, Death and the Maiden is tough to recommend.

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Death and the Maiden

Closed: July 13, 2014